Yoshihisa Tagami and the Oddities of Anime Journalism

So, here’s a weird one.

This is a translation of an article included in GREY Best Collection, an artbook for GREY: Digital Target. While most of the book is dedicated to the rather mediocre OVA, there’s a surprising amount of content from the comic that it was based on, Yoshihisa Tagami’s GREY. Including, this article… Sort of.

A tangent: It’s easy to assume that most Japanese-language anime writing is high-level stuff and representative of the years of history that the medium has in its own country. The truth is that a lot of writing about anime, be it for an anime magazine or anime artbook like this, is hindered by the commercial realities of the industry. Basically, it’s not always great writing. If you’re at all curious about Japanese anime journalism, I’d encourage you to pick the the fantastic second Colony Drop fanzine (full disclosure: I edited it), because it contains an in-depth discussion with a couple of Japanese anime writers and a lot of what they say will be surprising to Western fans.

Press event for GREY: Digital Target (1986). Director Satoshi Dezaki on on the far left, artist Yoshihisa Tagami is second from right.
Press event for GREY: Digital Target (1986). Director Satoshi Dezaki on on the far left, artist Yoshihisa Tagami is second from right.

What follows is an admittedly bizarre article that isn’t particularly noteworthy aside from the fact that I asked Laika to work on it before realizing how odd it actually was. After finishing, he mentioned how much he disliked translating a lot of anime writing because the unusual writing style and tone often made it look like he’d done a poor job translating, rather than the source material itself being crap. Fair enough.

That said, if you’ve ever looked at a Japanese art book, wondered just what all that writing was about, and wished you could speak Japanese to understand it, maybe this piece will remind you’re often not missing out on much.

About Yoshisa Tagami

Born in 1958, Tagami first achieved manga success in the early 1980s with Karuizawa Syndrome for Big Comic Spirits. What followed was an extremely prolific decade, with nearly 20 titles released over a 10-year span. Of these, GREY (1985), Horobi (1987) and Frontier Line (1987) would all eventually be translated and released in the U.S. Beyond manga, Tegami did character designs for Super High Speed Galvion (1984) and promotional artwork for the Famicom game Ikari (1986). While both GREY and Horobi got slick, squarebound books in English from Viz in the late ’80s (the former was even included a foreward by Harlan Ellison), Tagami has long since slipped from the lexicon of modern fans.

GREY: Best Collection, 1987, pg. 76-78

Does Machine Man Grey Dream of Two Head-Lengths Characters?

Tagami Yoshihisa pens two types of manga. One is with characters whose bodies are only two head-lengths, for example, works such as Karuizawa Syndrome or My Name is Wolf, and the other is with characters that always keep a serious head-to-body length ratio (though that’s not what you call it) , such as Fedayeen Warrior and GREY. The prior titles were set in the surrounding areas of Nagano, where Tagami himself grew up, and are more akin to stories that deal with everyday life, while the latter are hard action series in a world completely removed from reality. If you were to split up his work approximately, that is how it would turn out.

However, if you’re a fan of Tagami’s works, then you may find yourself asserting that they are really both part of the same “Tagami World.”

That’s because the protagonists in Tagami’s works are always running toward the same direction. Or to be more blunt, you could say that they’re all “living in the same way,” but “running” is much more fitting of a word.

So just where are they running to, then? And why the two different ways of drawing? Those are the questions that I would like to consider.

Yoshihisa Tagami

Whether it’s Karuizawa Syndrome or My Name is Wolf, the main characters in Tagami’s works are cool. They’re so cool you might find yourself saying that they’re too cool. On top of that, they’re always popular.

“They’re cool, so it’s only natural for them to be popular” you might say. But listen here, you. [Don’t just call out to me all of the sudden like that.] For argument’s sake, let’s say you’re male. Is that what you would really think in your heart? Would you think that’s how it should be?

If you were actually a cool guy, and if that’s what you believe, then you’d probably just say, “Yes.” But if you were one of those people who make up the majority, who aren’t particularly cool, or to put it bluntly, are no good at all, you wouldn’t say that. You’d probably say something like, “Even guys that are losers have something going for them, and I’m sure a girl will see that in them someday,” or that, “Cool guys are actually always pretty much jerks, and eventually they get seen for what they are and get dumped.” That’s the kind of opinion you’d probably prefer to agree with. And while we’re at it, you’d probably think that a world with a main character who wasn’t particularly cool, but still occupied the thoughts of two girls, and was having trouble deciding on which one was better, wouldn’t be too bad either. [Sorry that I’m just insulting people at this point. All I’m saying is, that’s how I am.]

At least I feel like you wouldn’t want to have someone just telling you very exactly that cool guys are the ones that get to be popular, and losers get don’t get anything. However…

Telling you things that you don’t want to hear is exactly what Tagami’s works are all about. The cool characters are always popular. The pathetic ones don’t get the time of day. If you want to be popular, then there’s no other way but to become cool. It might seem too much, but that’s just the kind of severe world it is.

Why is that difference so severe, you might ask. The answer is because the main characters are just that cool.

Now, I’ve already mentioned the issue of being popular or not with girls seven times already, and it might be getting on the nerves of sensible women, but you mustn’t forget one important thing: In Tagami’s manga the women are also cool. After all, she chooses who she likes on her own volition. And she doesn’t try to make him something that belongs to her, she accepts everything about him, but despite those things she still likes him, and so she chose him. That’s what’s cool about the female characters in Tagami’s manga.

With this much said, I’m sure you understand the reason behind why the main characters are so cool. It’s because they’re true to themselves no matter where they are. The oft-heard phrase in Tagami’s works, “I’ll settle the things that I’ve done,” is symbolic of that. They’re capable of settling things by themselves, and that’s how they’re able to treat others right. They’re cool, after all. If they weren’t able to settle the things that they did, that would mean that they were leaving it to others, which would make them lame.

The main character having this quality which makes them truly cool is a trademark of Tagami Yoshihisa. I guess you could say that all of his stories take place in a “hard boiled’ world.

But why do those hard boiled characters have to be drawn with bodies that are only two head-lengths?

“It’s no good for the body when peace lasts too long,” is what Kouhei mutters at the end of Karuizawa Syndrome. If you left the main characters of Tagami’s works alone, who knows where they’d run off to. It feels like they might even sprint off the pages of their worlds. In order to keep them in check, (or perhaps it’d be better to say, to trip their feet up, since they’re running) there’s a rope tied to them – and that is the fact that their bodies are two head-lengths. It’s because of this that the main characters don’t come off as overly cool, and you can feel like it’d be fine if they were really around. They can exist in a place near to the everyday world.

In a manner of speaking, by virtue of having bodies that are two head-lengths and being deformed, Tagami’s characters become realistic depictions of human characters.

And this is not limited to only the characters. The city that these tiny but real characters live in, the bikes and the cars they ride: those things aren’t drawn with what you’d call an aim to depict them realistically, and yet that makes them appear all the more real. It makes them seem living to us.

[Things seeming more realistic the more they’re deformed may sound paradoxical, but it really does happen. If you’re an anime fan then I’d like for you to call to mind Osamu Dezaki’s Treasure Island. Only the main character, Jim, is deformed, and doesn’t that makes him appear all the more realistic?]

What happens if the rope that keeps these characters tied down gets cut? The answer to that question is Fedayeen Warrior and GREY.

These two works have similar structures to them. The main character, who had lived an ordinary life, throws himself into a world of conflict and fighting, loses friend and lover, then grows bitter and angry. He becomes stronger, but at the same time loses everything. In the end, he’s stronger than everybody else but completely alone.

There are reservations that I have about this. Why must he continue to fight until he loses everything? Grey loses his lover, his friends, his own body, and everything in the world besides himself. Did he really have to go that far?

“Yes he did,” is what GREY tells us. He could not withdraw from a race that had been started.

That is one of those things that you just don’t want to hear. We always hope for some sort of salvation in conflict. May it be the light at the end of the tunnel, or someone telling you that you don’t need to fight anymore, or even just someone commending you on a job well done. But GREY spells it out clearly for us, those things don’t exist.

Why don’t they exist? Because it’s something that you started yourself. It doesn’t matter what the reason was, if it’s something that you started, then it’s something that only you can settle. Nobody’s going to finish it for you.

This point is the commonality of all of Tagami’s works. Main characters that are completely independent. That’s the charm of his works.

But there are still questions. Why are his main characters so strong, what has made them so independent?

“…Is it tenacity…?”
“…It’s anger.”
“Anger… towards what?”

Perhaps it’s anger towards wherever they began running to. Because they realized that once they began running, they would have to continue running.

“Where is the necessity to have to recognize that? … Humanity will be fine as it is.”

Grey was fine with how he was. He was fine with living and dying in the slums. But because of the death of Grey’s lover, Lips, he started running from his everyday life of his own accord. From that moment onward, he became someone who kept running. Running toward the source of an even greater anger. But the anger lies inside of him, so Grey must continue running forever. [Perhaps this is something where Tagami’s love of motorcycles comes into play, though as a person who doesn’t own one, I’m only guessing.]

We are familiar with a number of works that feature protagonists who run, not for someone else, or because they seek something, but just to do it. Cobra and Ashita no Joe by the aforementioned Osamu Dezaki fit into this category. Novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi, most notably, A Wind Named Amnesia. GREY also stands on this same road; an endless race track.

They’re all solitary heroes. For us, it’s a dangerous dream, or perhaps one that’s just too lonely. It might be better to be a loser in the everyday world of the two head-lengths characters.

But if you aspire at all to be truly “cool,” it might not hurt to just have a glimpse of that dangerous dream.

GREY might just be nothing more than a dream of one of those characters whose body is two head-lengths and has been living in peace for much too long in their everyday lives to know what to do with.